Thursday, December 08, 2016

Scott Pruitt: Beware the Lessons of History — and Read up on Anne Gorsuch Burford

President-Elect Trump’s appointment of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency vividly brings back to mind an equally controversial EPA head from a different era.  

Thirty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan appointed Anne Gorsuch to run the agency.  Like Trump, Reagan had inveighed against what he viewed as excessive federal regulation.  

''Government is not the solution to our problem,'' President Reagan told the nation in his first inaugural address.  ''Government is the problem.’'  And a prime target was the EPA, which, among other things, had set national smog standards detested by the oil industry.  

Enter Anne Gorsuch.  

Like Pruitt, Gorsuch was a lawyer and elected official from a state (in her case, Colorado) that had clashed with what it saw as a federal government that was putting too many limits on industry.

Gorsuch, later Burford following a re-marriage, was determined to carry out President Reagan’s agenda and rein in the regulators.  She was thwarted in an initial effort to re-write and basically neuter the Clean Air Act after bureaucratic leakers shared the plans with reporters of that era like me.   

But she was undeterred, slashing the agency’s budget and bringing enforcement of environmental laws to a virtual standstill.  (In one infamous episode, she personally told a New Mexico refiner that it could ignore federal standards on lead in gasoline because she was going to relax them anyway.  I still recall the horrified tone of the EPA bureaucrat who was in the room at the time and helped me make the episode public.)

Ultimately, Burford took the fall for the administration's growing environmental scandals.  She refused to turn over to Congress documents relating to an investigation of the Superfund toxic waste program.  But when the scandals wouldn’t go away, the White House released the documents and Burford was forced to resign after a mere 22 months in office.   

By then, the Reagan administration was starting to appreciate that the public really did want effective laws and standards to protect public health and the environment -- and that it wanted strong enforcement of them.

More than a year later, in 1984, I interviewed Burford at her home for a Regardies magazine profile.  She was a sad, bitter woman who felt cast away by a President and White House that she admired and thought she was serving.  

Yes, she said, there was a secret, face-saving deal that would give her an appointment to an obscure federal advisory panel on oceans and the atmosphere.   But “It’s a nothing burger,” she snarled. (An on-the-record comment that, when published, prompted then-CNN correspondent Daniel Schorr to call me and ask “Was she drunk when she talked with you?”) Ultimately that didn’t work out either.  She eventually returned to Colorado and died of cancer at the age of 62.

What was her government experience worth to her?   Perhaps a clue is her own published memoirs, which can be bought on Amazon today for a mere penny.

Some of the issues may have evolved from those of the Reagan era, but I believe the public does still want strong enforcement of effective national laws and standards to protect health and the environment. 

Mr. Pruitt, if I were you, I would take note.  

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